Thunder Bay·Audio

'I don't want to die on the streets' say Kenora, Ont. shelter clients

Susan, a client of the Kenora Service Hub, or homeless shelter, is worried she might not see her next birthday. It's next week.

Shelter slated to re-open September 26 after 6-week shutdown

Susan, a client of the Kenora Service Hub, or the homeless shelter in Kenora, says she's concerned that she could die on the streets if accommodations and other services are not provided by winter. (Jeff Walters/CBC)

Susan, a client of the Kenora Service Hub, or homeless shelter, is worried she might not see her next birthday.

Susan's birthday is next week.

CBC News has agreed to withhold her last name, as well as those of other shelter clients, as many fear for their safety.

Susan, a slight woman who was diagnosed with kidney failure just a few weeks ago, now weighs under 100 pounds. She is worried that if she has nowhere to sleep, her death may go unnoticed.

"I don't want to die in the street," she said. "These people are all my friends."

"I almost froze to death twice last year. Everywhere was full. Detox was full. We need our shelter."

Susan is one of the 40 or so people who used the new Kenora Service Hub. It was supposed to be a one-stop shop for those who need social services, a place to sleep and a meal. While the hub did provide much of what is was supposed to, many in Kenora were not ready for the drugs and security issues it brought.

"You know what, out of 100 people, 10 people ruined it for everybody," Susan said. "I need the shelter. I don't want to die on the street."

Next door to the service hub is Prelude Travel, with a nicely-kept lawn, a back deck, as well as a small flower garden in the front. It served as a green space for shelter clients, said Jaimie Potvin, a travel consultant, who is the first to arrive in the morning.

Prelude Travel, located next to the Kenora Service Hub, has concerns about the operation of the shelter after the travel agency's lawn, flowerbeds and deck were vandalized and defecated on while the hub was operational. (Jeff Walters/CBC)

"My heart was in my throat with what I had to come to here everyday," she said. "Instant, just people all over the place."

"Needles, pipes, garbage, clothes, camping out on the deck, like this is all on the property. Flower beds being ripped out of the garden, vandalism on the property, on the deck; people during the day coming on the property, defecating on the property."

It was concerns like those that led Kenora–Rainy River MPP Greg Rickford to announce, alongside Kenora District Services Board CAO Henry Wall, that the shelter would be reset or closed, effective Aug. 18, to do renovations to the building, to allow for staff training and to also ease some of the tension that the shelter brought.

The facility is located on Second Street S., a main thoroughfare in Kenora, and with road construction taking place through part of the downtown, virtually all of the traffic through town was funnelled right past the shelter.

"The goodwill, any goodwill, that was in the community, was quickly disappearing," said Kenora Mayor Dan Reyanrd.

"Businesses were frustrated ... especially those in close proximity, neighbours, and close to the church, it was not a good situation," he continued. "By them closing it, it allows them to regroup and to prepare and to bring forth the program that I honestly believe is going to meet the intended use."

"It was our tourists coming back to us and saying, 'we didn't feel safe, we were asked for money, we were asked for various things,'" said Teresa Gallik, the chair of the Kenora Hospitality Alliance, which is the group representing hoteliers in the city. "We were threatened. It wasn't a very nice situation."

The rise of meth in the community has given it an edge that it didn't have before-Gord Day-Janz, pastor at First Baptist Church

She said when the shelter was shuttered, it lowered the temperature in the city and the visibility of drug use and homelessness seemed to decrease.

What many said Kenora was not ready for, was the rise of crystal meth use.

Homelessness and alcohol abuse have been an issue in the city for decades, said Gord Day-Janz, the pastor at First Baptist Church, which is just down the street from the Service Hub. He added that many were used to seeing those social issues out in the open. However, the use of syringes, in very open and public spaces, was something the community was shocked to see.

"It's an issue, I've been here 30 years and it's been an issue for the 30 years I've been here," Day-Janz said. "It's changing. The rise of meth in the community has given it an edge that it didn't have before."

Gord Day-Janz, the Pastor at First Baptist Church in Kenora, Ont., says the community is struggling with how to deal with a rise in the use of crystal meth. He said homelessness and alcoholism has been visible for over 30 years, but the use of crystal meth is a "challenge." (Jeff Walters/CBC)

"We've been dealing with the things, the divisive kinds of things, for 30 years," he continued. "It's changing in the sense that I think it's a little more raw than it was before. Alcohol and meth are not the same thing and they present differently, so I think that that has changed."

Compounding the problem in Kenora were two fires which destroyed a number of housing units in the city. Kenora has a housing shortage, and the fires at Lila's Block on Main Street S., as well as at the Pink Block on nearby Matheson Street, displaced a number of people, as well as the drug use that was inside those buildings.

The group running the Kenora Service Hub hopes the re-opening of the shelter will be a success. Patti Fairfield, the executive director of the Ne-Chee Friendship Centre, said there's no other option but success.

"You know we're talking about the soft opening, and we've got to get things right, but we still have people's lives at stake here," she said. "They're still out in the elements."

"So, while we might be providing dinner and an overnight accommodation, what happens during the day?"

Fairfield also noted that the soft re-opening of the facility on Sept. 26 is only for sleeping and dinner.

Patti Fairfield, the executive director of the Ne-Chee Friendship Centre, says when the shelter re-opens on Sept. 26, it will start with overnight accommodation and an evening meal. (Jeff Walters/CBC)

Fairfield said she was not consulted about the initial shutdown, although she said the operation of the shelter wasn't as smooth as she hoped.

"I didn't know about it, I wasn't part of the decision making on that aspect, because if I had been asked, I would have said right from the get-go that I wasn't in agreement," she said. "However, things happen, and I can't go back and we can't change that fact, so what are we going to do going forward?"

Fairfield said staff re-training, adding more staff and making some physical adjustments for safety will be complete by the time the facility re-opens.

Those affected by the shutdown said the concern is that those who used crystal meth in the shelter, leaving discarded syringes and paraphernalia behind, will ruin it once again.

"They didn't follow the rules, they destroyed the property next door with garbage, syringes ... and businesses got scared," Susan said. "They lost business, they lost money, they're scared."

"Ten out of 90 destroyed it ... and when Lila's block burned, they weren't ready for us," she continued. "The churches have been so good, you know, this place has been great, but they can't do it forever."

"Winter's coming and it's colder, and I don't want to freeze to death. I want to be home, and the shelter's home."


Jeff Walters

Former CBC reporter

Born and raised in Thunder Bay, Jeff worked in his hometown, as well as throughout northwestern Ontario.